Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795
In The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons revisits the memorable character that she introduced to a wide readership nearly twenty years ago. In that earlier novel, Ellen Foster (1987), the title character, an eleven-year-old girl from rural North Carolina, recounted the story of her early life with a suicidal mother and abusive father. Relying almost completely on her own native intelligence and personal perceptive powers, however, Ellen managed to survive the loss of both parents, the active malevolence of her grandmother, the indifference of her aunt, and the complacent incompetence of the social service system, eventually to build some semblance of a happy home life in foster care.
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In this second novel, Ellen, now fifteen years old, is confronted with a new set of challenges, each one related to her new identity as a teenager. In some ways, this second volume in the author’s coming-of-age saga can be compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). In fact, Ellen herself forces this comparison when she refers repeatedly to the sixteen-year-old protagonist of that earlier work, Holden Caulfield, as if his situation were similar to hers.
In fact, Ellen Foster is essentially the antithesis of Holden Caulfield. While he is cynical and misanthropic, convinced that he is living in a world dominated by “phoniness,” she clings to the memory of her mother’s love and cultivates a coterie of supportive individuals. While Holden seems unconcerned about his expulsion from prep school, in part because he feels that formal education is a fraud, Ellen plots to gain early admittance to college out of a devotion to reading and a desire for knowledge. While he turns a life of privilege into an exercise in nihilism, she transcends a disastrous upbringing to find her own positive momentum and meaning.
The novel begins and ends with the author’s creative invocation of a real-life personage, Derek Curtis Bok, who served as president of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991. The preamble to the first chapter is a letter to Dr. Bok from Ellen, making a case not only for early admission but also for financial aid. Near the end of the narrative, as a catalyst for the protagonist’s reversal of fortune, Bok contacts Ellen’s family lawyer to gain corroboration of the claims made in her unsolicited letter. In doing so, Bok sets in motion events that restore to Ellen her proper inheritance and resolve her money worries.
Ellen’s letter to Bok introduces the reader to the main character’s compelling voice, a particular strength of the first novel and one that critics continue to praise regarding this sequel. Ellen’s tale is told in the first-person voice, with no quotation marks applied to the speech of the other characters. This lack of conventional punctuation gives the text, at times, a breathless quality, reflective, in part, of the narrator’s nervous energy and her desire to live a larger life by cramming as much as she can into every moment. “Nothing you think, feel, or do should be watered down,” Ellen asserts.
The letter also brims with evidence of a lively mind as yet inadequately channeled and cultivated, as indicated by her erratic control of the subjunctive mood and her quirky alternative vocabulary, such as her use of “disdone” for “undone.”
Like Holden Caulfield’s compelling first-person narrative but without his profanity and negativism, Ellen’s story sweeps the reader into the world of a bright teenager grappling with the concerns of that particular stage of human development. Foremost is the matter of equilibrium. Ellen’s childhood was so chaotic and so unpredictable that she yearns for some stability. This stability she appears to achieve by means of four basic elements: a caring foster parent, an ordered space, an established rhythm of activity, and a devotion to language.
First, there is her guardian, Laura, whom Ellen compares periodically to the American actor Ava Gardner (1922-1990), partially because of her beauty and partially because of regional association. Gardner was born, according to Ellen, “a few roads over” near the small, agriculture-based town of Brogden in Johnson County, North Carolina.
Laura helps Ellen and her friends negotiate a world often dominated by “hard adults” totally lacking in empathy. At the state fair, for example, it is she who extricates the youngsters from the “Moravian lady” appalled at Starletta’s appropriation of the “crumb tray” at her concession stand. Laura also makes sure that Stuart is not cheated by Mrs. Tom Thumb, the featured “oddity,” after she coerces him into buying her an elaborate lunch featuring “Methodist hot dogs.” Most important, Laura serves as a buffer against Ellen’s Aunt Nadine when Nadine is confronted with the fact that she has been passing off her daughter Dora as Ellen in order to get her hands on Ellen’s inherited property.
Laura is also the architect of a personal living space that provides sanctuary not only to Ellen but also to others battered by life. She has given Ellen a place in the storm, and she also offers her house as a refuge for women such as the mother of one of Ellen’s friends who needs, from time to time, a “peace of mind room,” a place to escape her cares as a parent of five sons. “There’s a kind of love behind the thoughtfulness you see when you open the door to a room that draws you inside to sit down and gaze,” Ellen notes about her foster home. For someone whose first eleven years were chaotic, this three-year respite in a clean, well-ordered space offers Ellen a chance to regain her footing.
As Ellen repeatedly emphasizes, her native region of North Carolina has little to offer in the way of natural beauty; it is essentially a flat, featureless landscape midway between the coast and the mountains. Beauty, in such a place, resides in the caring concern of others and the interior spaces that they create to shelter their loved ones.
In addition to her having found a parent and a home to compensate for the shortcomings of her birth family and birthplace, Ellen takes solace in scheduling her daily activities and trying to establish a rhythm in her life “as dependable as the seasons.” In this regard, Gibbons devotes one whole chapter to the difference that October makes in Ellen’s life and the lives of those around her. October, according to Ellen, offers “some color and snappy weather and flocks of birds flying south to allow you to breathe deeply in trust that the universe knows what to do and when to do it.” For someone whose world has been rocked periodically by the unexpected, the consistent changing of the seasons brings comfort that there are some things in the world on which one can count.
Ellen’s fourth and final building block of a reconstructed life is her academic prowess and the “prizes for talent and striving” that she has won. It is particularly in her role as wordsmith that Ellen has come to make sense of her world and leave her mark. To help pay for a short-term enrichment program at The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, for example, Ellen sells poems to her classmates: “a precomposed poem for two dollars or get a custom-made one for four. Concrete poetry ran at least a dollar higher.” Not only does her verse composition bring much-needed cash, but these efforts also help Ellen to make sense of her experience. On the train to Baltimore, for example, she writes “twenty-five poems, with an overall theme of carpe diem with a sideline of Beauty.” These works, she herself affirms, help her relate to the passing sights observed through the window of her passenger car and remind her of the need to “stare out less and seize so much more.”
Despite her well-laid plans, Ellen knows from past experience that some matters seem to be beyond personal control. In this regard, Ellen is not immune to the concerns of all other teenagers. For instance, she very much wants to be respected by her peers. Almost one whole chapter is devoted to her calibrating her place among her schoolmates as they share time at their traditional gathering place, the “low rock wall in front of the school.” It is safe to say, however, that Ellen’s intelligence does not find its match among her classmates in rural North Carolina; only during her special weekend program at Johns Hopkins does she encounter others whose mental abilities rival her own, “narrating tours of the intellect and museums you hadn’t been on and letting you know you weren’t the first one to discover something.” If, as she has claimed, Gibbons plans to write other volumes in this multitext Bildungsroman, following the character to Harvard and beyond, it will be interesting to see how Ellen finds her place among her intellectual peers.
In addition to carving out some position in the group, teenage girls are often troubled with the opposite sex, and Ellen is no exception. One of her longtime friends, Stuart, has, within the last year, been transformed by puberty into a creature marked by “an interfering, constant longing.” Characterized by Laura as a “nitwit with a heart of gold,” Stuart becomes fixated on the thought of his marrying Ellen, but although she has come to count on his supportive presence, she has no intention of ever tying the knot with him. Ellen has much more to see and do in her life, and she does not plan to settle for diminished possibilities.
In this regard, Ellen is prompted by memories of her mother’s sad fate. In a psychiatrist’s appraisal of her mother’s condition at the time of her last hospitalization, a document stuffed in a box of her mother’s things reluctantly surrendered by Nadine after her duplicity has been revealed, Ellen gets written confirmation of her mother’s love for her as well as her “embarrassment” over the fact that she could not defend herself or her daughter against her “cruel and negligent” husband. Knowledge of her mother’s sense of powerlessness informs Ellen’s own striving for personal control.
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster enters the ranks of other coming-of-age novels of note. Its predecessor, Ellen Foster, has been compared to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee as a work that traces the upbringing and education of a memorable southern protagonist as she comes to recognize her place and role in the world. When paired with Ellen Foster, this new novel serves to offer further insight into a plucky, self-reliant character that has already attracted scores of admiring readers.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 126
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